What do we need to do to get schools to embrace character education?

Ahead of the publication of a new report, the author discusses how we should change the education system

Ralph Scott

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Last weekend, Nicky Morgan’s Department for Education announced the first recipients of its new Character Grant scheme: projects designed both to develop character directly and those improve the evidence base as to what works in developing it, so that "more pupils leave school prepared for the challenges of life in modern Britain".

'Character' education can be broadly understood as schooling that develops not just academic ability but also skills like resilience and communication and moral values like honesty and compassion. It does not conflict with but rather reinforces academic education. As Morgan put it in her speech to Conservative party conference in 2014:

"For too long there has been a false choice between academic standards and activities that build character and resilience. But the two should go hand in hand. … As much as I want the next generation to be able to solve a quadratic equation, I also want them to be able to make a compelling pitch for a job, and to be able to bounce back if things don’t work out. That’s why we’ve invested in areas like music, sport and debating that help to shape and teach important values like hard work, discipline, teamwork."

By pursuing this agenda – and making it one of the six key priorities of her department – the education secretary is distinguishing herself from her predecessor. Michael Gove, in public consciousness at least, was primarily precoccupied with standards, as understood through robust attainment measures – despite the fact that his capacious hinterland included an interest in character, grit, resilience and values education (the latter inspired by ED Hirsch’s cultural literacy).

It also works well for the government politically, blunting a line of attack that the opposition, and Tristram Hunt in particular, had been making a great deal of headway with prior to their taking it up.

The evidence base for the importance of these skills is strong, they are popular with teachers and schools alike, and it is clear also that schools play an important role in developing them – but beyond the Character Grants, what does the education system need to do to become character-building?

Character Nation, a new report from Demos published this week is a first attempt at answering this question. Supported by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, and drawing on their research, in addition to reviewing recent evidence on what works, best practice case studies and consulting with teachers and education experts, the report brings together the existing evidence on these skills and how educational practice works to develop them.

We found that character-building schools took its development seriously, making it the specific responsibility of a senior member of staff and often adopting a whole-school ethos; embedding it across their delivery of the curriculum and throughout the school, including in assemblies and communication with parents. They also had dedicated time for reflection, sometimes including personal coaching or mentoring, as well as asking the students to regularly report on their own progress. They were also hubs of their community: involving students in community volunteering projects and actively engaging parents.

So what do we need to change to encourage more schools to adopt these approaches, to create a character building education system? Well, quite a lot.

Firstly, Ofsted must be reformed to consider character development with the same significance as academic education – we suggest this is done by adapting the current requirement to develop students spiritually, morally, socially and culturally and placing it on a par with teaching and learning in the inspection framework. We also draw inspiration from the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence in advocating that during inspections, Ofsted look also at the school’s surrounding community, to take account of the opportunities for extra-curricular character development and encourage schools, parents and community groups to work together.

Performance tables should be reformed to include sophisticated and context-weighted destination data, which would reward character-building schools whose students have better later life outcomes. We also support the introduction of a new qualification to include character-building components in the curriculum: putting our weight behind the National Baccalaureate which has been steadily garnering grassroots support.

We echo the recommendations of the recent Carter Review of initial teacher training, which suggested greater emphasis on character education in addition to harmonisation of ITT routes. To ensure those already in the profession are also familiar with best practice, we advocate the development of good quality character CPD training.

However, we also recognise the proliferation of a school-led model, and in turn, the limits this places on central government to effect top-down reform, so make recommendations to schools directly. This includes the suggestion that schools hold a regular AGM for the whole ‘school community’ – including governors, senior leaders, teachers, TAs, back office staff, parents and students – where participants reflect on character development priorities, opportunities and progress made.

Finally, we argue that having a national statement of the purpose of education in England – which is developed through a genuine and structured national conversation and places due emphasis on character – could help ensure that everyone within the education system agrees on its overall aims, and that character education initiatives are consensual and therefore achieve wide take-up and longevity.

While the Education and Adoption Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech may have dispirited advocates of character, the announcement at the weekend shows that it remains a priority for Morgan. The question is, what will she do next?

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Ralph Scott

Ralph Scott is enior researcher at Demos

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